1 Corinthians 15:35-50
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year C
Memories can be faulty, but yet this one feels clear to me. There we were, a group of students from
Yale Divinity School, gathered for the smaller section portion of our New Testament class. One student, after permission from the section leader, asked us all, "Do you actually believe in the resurrection of the body?"
The room, long and narrow, was very quiet as we all looked around at each other. Slowly, I raised my hand and said, "I do." There was incredulity all around, with some people unsure of how to put their own beliefs into words. Clarification was sought- did the questioner mean the body of Jesus or our own bodies? He meant both, but more the latter.
Wherever the conversation went, I maintained my affirmation, my credo. Of all the things in the Apostle's Creed that might be difficult for me, belief in the resurrection of the body as a real, not metaphorical, promise of God is not one of them. I can believe it for two reasons: first, I believe God loves bodies and, second, I believe Divine love is more expansive (and mysterious) than we can comprehend.
In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, which we have been examining for six weeks, this is the climax of his argument. He has brought them through some of their disagreements to remind them to be a community, functioning together the way that a body does. He reminds them that love is the hallmark of a community that finds identity in Christ. He teaches them that Jesus appears to all kinds of people and the Spirit gives each person their own gifts and their own vocation for the sake of the community.
He builds, then, to explain the great power of the Incarnation- God taking on flesh. Since Jesus had a real body, then the realities of salvation are tangible and true for this life- not just for someday when we "fly away". Now, in these last verses, Paul is pressing his ultimate point to the Corinthians who are trying to live in the Way of Jesus.
Granted, Paul's not terribly gentle as he roars up to his point. Fools, he calls, the Corinthians as he repeats the kinds of questions he has been asked about life after death. He is dismissive not because he doesn't have compassion, but because their questions miss the point.
The Corinthians don't have long life expectancies. There's high infant mortality and maternal mortality as well. There are wars, plagues, illnesses, and issues that come from the type of hygiene that existed and was embraced. Bodies felt frail and limited. Surely, eternal life would bring a sweet release from the aches and pangs of the bodies that they had known in this life. Certainly, God wouldn't make them shuffle on forever with the scars, wounds, defects, and deformities that they had struggled with in this existence.
For the Corinthians, like us, being rid of the body wasn't necessarily a rejection of Jesus's resurrection or God's promises. It was both hope for something better and a failure of imagination. Paul is trying to break into that failure pointing out that God does not give us something that we are not meant to have. This is not the same as saying whatever happens to us is God's will. That is not true, because free will means that we may make choices or be affected by the choices of others that are not what God wanted for us.
However, if we look at what we have- materially and spiritually, we have received grace upon grace. In that outpouring of grace, Paul is saying, we have real, genuine, tangible, bodies. Yes, they may hurt or fall short or not be the shape of our dreams, but our bodies are gifts from God. And if God gives us a gift, it is meant to be loved, spoken well of, and not discarded. Paul argues that if God gives us a body, it's probably a forever gift- just like grace, mercy, and love.
The sustaining of the forever gift of the body is a mystery, not to be solved in this life. It is meant to be enjoyed and, furthermore, put to good use for all the things that Paul has mentioned in the other 14 chapters of the book. It means nothing to form a community, to care for others, to show love, to live into vocation if it is just done metaphorically or mentally. The only way we can truly form a community of love is by actually caring for other people by doing for them. And doing things requires a body. Even prayer requires our brains, all the systems that feed and care for the brain, and the rest of our body to carry out the actions of the prayer. There is no purely spiritual activity. Anything that we do for God, compelled by the Spirit, will require our body if we are actually going to live into it.
And if our body is what God gifts us for this world, then we will have a body of some kind- a real, tangible, useful body- for the work of the life to come.
In a side note to this point, related more to the Luke reading than 1 Corinthians, when the gospel writer says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”- it is notan indication that God expects us to endure abuse- to our bodies, our minds, or our spirits- as a regular occurrence. In the context of the whole reading, the sermon on the plain, it is to be noted that abuse may occur while one is living out the realities of being Christian. One may be called names for standing up for the marginalized or have rocks thrown at them (literally) while working on behalf of the poor. This is where Jesus’ words apply, we don’t fight back in those circumstances because it would take energy away from the good we were doing. Daily abuse, however, in a family, work, or romantic context- the kind that wears away at our bodies and our will, not to mention our ability to do good- this is not something that God causes as a test for us or means for us to endure. On-going trauma to our bodies is not God’s plan or will. Why? Because it is not in line with the reality that God has gifted us our bodies and loves them.
That is why I believe in the resurrection of the body. God must love bodies because God made them. Through generation after generation, eon after eon, God has sustained the bodies of animals, the corporeal form of plants, the solidity of rocks, and the fragile flesh of humanity. After speaking through fire, whirlwind, flood, and even stillness, God finally chose to take on the human form- embracing the body as the most beloved part of creation. Bodies bring other bodies into the world, show compassion, reveal passion, and devote care at the end of all things. God loves bodies. And, I believe, God does not destroy what God loves.
My second reason for believing in the resurrection of the body is this: Divine love is more expansive (and mysterious) than we can comprehend. Western Christians, especially Americans, often try to make the world into neat categories. We want black or white, cat or dog, apple or orange, male or female, Grizzlies or Bobcats, John Deere or International Harvester, downhill or cross-country, regular or decaf.
And, yes, sometimes there are only two choices. But more often than not, there's a third way. And a fourth way, a fifth, a sixth, and so much more. We have salt water and fresh water, but there are also marshes and estuaries when both kinds of water mix. Life in estuaries exists in that place for the health of both the fresh and saltwater systems. The things that live in estuaries exist in a third way, with their bodies.
Mountains and plains are both amazing and necessary, but mesas, canyons, dry riverbeds, deserts, and jungles also serve purposes for creation. We cannot simply limit the landscape to our favorite, because there are life forms beyond our knowing that live in all kinds of terrain- and their existence may make ours possible in an inter-relational way. We need their bodies and they may need our care.
God who made otters, beavers, and ducks- all who have their own purposes- also made the platypus- a venomous duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-bodied egg-laying mammal that intrigues, terrifies, and delights. Apparently, God even likes to mix categories.
My point is that God's majesty and mystery, God's power and might, God's love and mercy are so much higher, deeper, and broader than we can imagine. We attempt to limit God's expanse to what we understand, but instead, God's call beckons us to let go of the illusion of control and instead say, "Isn't this amazing."
When we do that with the concept of the resurrection of the body, we come to the same place as Paul. We have a body now that may end and there we will someday have a concrete form that will not end. We have spiritual gifts from God and the gift of our bodies for the sake of the world. We have brokenness now and we will have restoration, in this life and in the life to come. We have knowledge and strength and we have confusion and questions.
We ourselves are marshes, mixing salt and fresh, trust and doubt, physical and spiritual gifts and blessing. We are marshes, combining the real presence and the felt absence of living in the imitation of Christ. We are marshes, working for healing, renewing, and refreshing the world with our God-given gifts.
Yes, I believe in the resurrection of the body.
I believe in it because Jesus' body was resurrected as a demonstration of God's power and God's love.
I believe it because the Spirit helps me and the Bible tells me so.
I believe it because God's revelation since the beginning of all things shows a love for the real and the concrete, particularly bodies.
I believe it because God is bigger than what I know and what I can imagine.
I believe in the resurrection of the body, from the tomb, from the pains of this life, and in the life of the world to come.